Swing Guitar

Dedicated to pre-bebop jazz guitar.

Friday, August 05, 2005

The "Straight Ahead" Problem

When given a jazz standard, 99% of professional jazz musicians will automatically play the song in a "Straight Ahead" style. If you're not familiar with the term "straight-ahead", it basically refers to the general style of jazz in the post-bebop era upto, but not including, fusion. When you listen to Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck, or almost any other major jazz figure of the last 50 years, outside of fusion and smooth jazz. Although the artists mentioned are varied in style, they all fit into the "straight-ahead" umbrella - laid back, swung eighths feel, walking bass, ride cymbal led drums, sporatic comped piano. Each of these stylistic hallmarks are modern developments from the bebop era.

So, what does that have to do with Swing?

Well, when playing swing simply playing old songs does not make Swing music.
Consider that swing (and much other traditional, pre-bop jazz) is very much dance music. Accordingly, the beat is central to Swing, and playing the proper Swing feel is crucial.

Listen to these two excerpts:
Benny Goodman Sextet (w/Charlie Christian) 1941 - A Smo-o-oth One - mp3
Herb Ellis (w/Freddie Green) 1955 - A Smooth One - mp3
(The second one has been slowed slightly so the tempos are the same ~130bpm)

Notice how Herb Ellis' phrasing is much more laid-back, and behind the beat. The feel is almost like a shuffle, rather than 4-beat swing. The Goodman version is very much on the beat. Although both versions are slow (~130bpm), hear how the Goodman version pushes evenly, not lagging or laying back. Benny Goodman and company are playing Swing. Herb Ellis is not. Herb and company are playing Straight-Ahead Jazz.

99% of today's professionaljazz musicians would consider the 2nd version as the "correct" way to play the song "A Smo-o-oth One". Those same musicians would consider the first version "corny" or "hackneyed" or "lame". Most Swing bands are full of those 99% is spoke of, and consequently, most Swing bands don't play Swing music.

The first step in overcoming the problem is identifying it. Learn to recognize when other musicians are playing in the swing style and when they are not. If you can understand what not to do, it helps to figure out what to do.


  • At 5:10 AM, Anonymous Freddie said…

    I'd love it if you could repost something like this with working examples on the new blog?


Post a Comment

<< Home